The first time I had heard anything about The Hurt Locker was the fall of 2008. Among the bigger, splashier titles at the Toronto International Film Festival that year—like Slumdog Millionaire, The Wrestler, and Rachel Getting Married—was this little thriller from Kathryn Bigelow about the War on Terror.

At the time, movies like this died quick deaths—with the public, with critics, with everyone. Remember Lions for Lambs? Rendition? In the Valley of Elah

The fall of 2007 was the time when Hollywood was ready to react to the geopolitics of the post-9/11 world. As it was with so many similar events before it, this response was passionately angry and—perhaps as a direct result—wildly inconsistent. These movies had great intentions—depending on what side of the political aisle you sat, of course—but in an effort to make people “feel all the feels” [a 2017 term more than a 2007 one], they failed to do anything interesting cinematically.

Not one of them withstood the test of time, not even a year later in the fall of 2008 when young me assumed The Hurt Locker would join them and go quietly—maybe silently—in the good cinematic night. I mean, this one didn’t even have the stars of Lions for Lambs or Rendition. Where were Reese Witherspoon, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep, and Jake Gyllenhaal and why weren’t they crying for mercy and pleading for reason about the crime that was Iraq while an orchestral score swelled to crescendo.

The Hurt Locker was released as unceremoniously as I expected in the summer of 2009, and I wandered into the downtown Scranton, PA, multiplex to check it out. My expectations were minimal, but as you might expect by now, the film—no pun intended—blew my preconceptions to hell. 

It follows three men toward the end of a tour of duty in Iraq. Staff Sgt. William James [Jeremy Renner] is maybe the best in the world at defusing IEDs. Sgt. J.T. Sanborn [Anthony Mackie] is in charge of the unit protecting him. And Specialist Owen Eldridge [Brian Geraghty] is one of Sanborn’s men who’s suffering from some mental trauma after James’ predecessor [Guy Pearce in a one-scene cameo] is killed in action.

Nothing in the film is complicated. It’s all stakes. We are introduced early on in the proceedings to a countdown to the day when these three men can head home. Every set piece that follows—from a car bomb James works on without a helmet to the film’s money shot, a spider’s web of interconnected IEDs coming out of the ground—is heightened for its proximity to this date. 

The film is a master class in suspenseful storytelling that gives new meaning to the term “white knuckle.” Mine where practically opaque by the time two hours had passed in that theater. In fact, it sort of ruined the movie summer of 2009 for me. Nothing could live up to The Hurt Locker

And so it was for the rest of the year. Bigelow’s film, despite stiff competition from directors like Tarantino and the Coens, remained my #1 of the last year of the previous decade. But it’s journey to the Oscars the following year was—is—still too improbable to comprehend. 

I’ll get into that more later in the week, but The Hurt Locker broke so many rules in winning Best Picture and Best Director, including the rule that the War on Terror was cinematic poison. [It just took a badass woman to figure it out.]

I think The Hurt Locker’s place in history is a product of winning those awards. While it has so many great qualities, which my colleagues will recount in wonderful detail throughout the week, its validation over other major pieces of work that year opened the door to other filmmakers who wanted to explore this piece our recent history, not to mention what it did for female filmmakers more generally, and these two achievements are, for the world of cinema, among the most meta-important of the last ten years.

This week, keep an eye out for the following pieces on The Hurt Locker:

  • The Cinessential Podcast, Episode 18
  • Re-thinking the 82nd Academy Awards
  • Filmography on the work of Kathryn Bigelow
  • Related Review of the upcoming Detroit
  • And more!